The hero of Hillbilly Elegy, the new family drama from director Ron Howard, begins the film with a note of nostalgia. He says he feels most at home in Kentucky’s hill country, and the summers he spent there were the best part of his childhood. Barely a minute after this narration, sadistic bullies attack the hero. They attempt to drown him in a swimming hole, then beat him on the shore. What, exactly, is so great about the summers here? The film, based on a memoir by J.D. Vance, has no answer for this incongruity.
Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor bounces around between two time periods. When we first meet adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso), he is a Yale Law student who struggles to pay tuition and yearns for a summer associateship in Washington with his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). Amy Adams plays J.D.’s mother Bev, and after she overdoses, he has no choice but to leave Connecticut for Ohio to make sure she gets the care she needs. This journey is an opportunity for J.D. to reflect on his childhood—Owen Asztalos plays him as a teenager—and there are long flashbacks where J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) tries to provide structure amid Bev’s erratic behavior.
Below the scenes of Vance family life, the film’s running theme is culture war. In scene after scene, the characters suggest their way of living is more “authentic” than the snooty coastal elites. J.D. is caught between these two worlds: Bev teases him about the “fancy law school” he attends, and there is a pivotal dinner where, among the smooth-talking lawyers, J.D. does not know what type of wine to order and how to use silverware appropriately. Howard films this dinner like a horror movie, with lots of quick cuts and sharp angles, to suggest J.D.’s escalating stress. The tension is totally manufactured, because, well, no one is especially rude to J.D., and he is unnecessarily defensive. It is an elaborate straw man, cynically designed to make us sympathize with a young man who is not very interesting. Once you see through each contrived directorial choice, the whole set-up becomes tedious.
It is no surprise the scenes with Adams and Close are more effective than the ones with Basso. He simply cannot stand alongside two of the best actors of their respective generations. Close’s elaborate makeup does a lot of the work—she is almost unrecognizable with her stretched skin and baggy clothes—but Mamaw’s stubborn nature is the only part of Hillbilly Elegy that depicts any emotional truth. Adams is convincing as Bev, a woman whose moodiness has real consequences. She deals with the cops more than once, and Adams carefully shows how a simple argument can spiral beyond her control. The scenes of addiction have a sense of tragedy about them, although the notes of recovery and relapse are well-explored territory, and Howard offers no fresh insight.
Vance is a noted conservative—he wrote for The American Conservative, and his eventual wife Usha clerked for Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh—but his story is being adapted by “Hollywood liberals.” Howard handles this contradiction not with grace but with self-flagellation. Hillbilly Elegy bends over backwards to understand how the other half lives, except anything that is meant to be unique to Vance’s Appalachian upbringing is already universal. Whenever Mamaw talks about the importance of family or how hillbillies respect the dead, the implication is that no one else feels this way, but that ignores the values of every society on the planet. This is not Howard’s crisis of imagination, but Vance’s. Because he cannot see beyond his humble upbringing, he conflates what is distinctive with what is ordinary.
Many great films have depicted the challenges of rural family life. Amy Adams was nominated for an Academy Award for Junebug, a film where she plays a simple woman who has reserves of empathy and wisdom that few will ever recognize. Howard also directed Parenthood, a great multi-generational film about how the members of one family constantly surprise and disappoint one another. What they share is an earned sense of specificity and some curiosity about human nature. Hillbilly Elegy has none of that, instead opting for histrionics and one maudlin cliché after another. There is little narrative arc, only a raw glimpse of this flawed family, so Howard and his collaborators strain for significance that always eludes them.
Hillbilly Elegy is available to stream on Netflix.